”Excuse me, but can I be you for a while?” — “Silent All These Years” (1992)
There are many ways to write about the music of Tori Amos. On one hand, one could write this sort of feature as a biography of her life or discuss her music on a purely compositional level; on the other, one could take a more personal approach, exploring how Amos’ songs have shaped and reflected their own experiences.
I’ve attempted a blend of all these methods – I only became seriously interested in Amos’ music in 2007, so my own experiences with her albums obviously differ from those of someone who grew up with her music in the ‘90s — and in the process hope to capture just what draws me to this extraordinary composer and musician who, over the course of fourteen albums and hundreds of songs, has become an integral part of my life.
1966-1988: Those Formative Years and Y Kant Tori Read
”They say you were something in those formative years…” – “Pretty Good Year” (1994)
Tori Amos was born Myra Ellen Amos on August 22, 1963 in Newton, North Carolina, the youngest of three children of a Protestant minister, Ed Amos, and his wife Mary. From an early age, Amos was considered a childhood prodigy, playing piano by ear at two-and-a-half; at age five, she was the youngest person ever admitted to the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland. During this time, Amos was also listening to Doors and Led Zeppelin records provided by her older brother Michael (songs she would then sneak into her practice sessions in the living room) and showtunes played by her mother, as well as reading surrealist poetry.
Amos was kicked out of the Conservatory six years later after losing interest in her studies, partly because she argued that the discography of such artists as the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix deserved to stand alongside the likes of Bach and Beethoven. She then began to play in gay bars in Georgetown in Washington D.C. accompanied by her father – as she later noted, “the men in the bar were far more interested in my father standing in the back in his clerical collar than me” – and soon began playing hotels throughout the city.
When she was sixteen, Amos released her first single “Baltimore”, an ode to the city co-written by her older brother Michael, and received a citation from the city mayor for the tune. At eighteen, she was given the name ‘Tori’ by a friend’s boyfriend, and when she turned twenty-one, she moved to L.A. to pursue a music career.
In 1986, she co-founded the synth-rock group Y Kant Tori Read together with bassist Brad Cobb, future Guns ’n’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum, and guitarist Steve Caton, who would become a longtime collaborator. The group’s name was inspired by Amos’ reluctance to learn to sight-read music while at the Peabody Conservatory, where she instead preferred to play by ear.
Y Kant Tori Read’s one and only album, a self-titled record released in July of 1988, was a commercial and critical flop despite substantial promotion by Atlantic. In retrospect, the record is actually not that bad, although not without its embarrassments; Amos spent decades claiming that Billboard called the album “bimbo music” in a review when the writer said anything but. Unfortunately, not much good can be said about the cringe-inducing music video for lead single “The Big Picture”, which features Amos arguing with a cop that had just broken into her car and stolen her underwear:
Not long after the album’s failure, Amos was publicly humiliated in a restaurant by record industry employees and, as she would tell Rolling Stone years later, “understood for the first time that I was a joke”. She found solace playing piano at a friend’s apartment and began to redirect her career towards a more piano-based approach to songwriting, a path that would eventually lead to her landmark solo debut album Little Earthquakes in 1992.
1992-1996: I Hear My Voice
”Every finger in the room is pointing at me…” – “Crucify” (1992)
The path to Little Earthquakes wasn’t an easy journey — not only were versions of the record rejected twice by Atlantic, executives told Amos that a ‘girl and a piano’ wouldn’t sell, and some even infamously suggested that the album might be commercially successful if she took all the pianos off and replaced them with guitars. (Perhaps ironically, one such naysayer, Arif Martin, would later go on to produce the massively successful piano-playing singer-songwriter Alicia Keys.) Nonetheless, Doug Morris, an executive at Atlantic, saw potential in the album, and became a mentor of sorts to Amos during the creation of the record.
When the album was released in 1992, it came as a shock to the system. The impact of Little Earthquakes, which celebrated its twenty-fifth birthday this year, on popular music cannot be overstated; it is entirely valid to argue that without the critical and commercial success of Amos’ debut, the now-ubiquitous genre of piano-playing female singer-songwriters would not exist, and female artists would not be as free to explore controversial topics.
Some of the album’s production has grown dated, but the songwriting and lyrics remain as emotionally potent and galvanizing as ever. When Amos sings, “Years go by, will I still be waiting for somebody else to understand?” in “Silent All These Years”, it feels as though she’s voicing these fears for the very first time every time and she always finds solace in the warmth of the song’s gentle coda:
During the creation of the album, Amos met and fell in love with Eric Rosse, who would co-produce several tracks on the record and act as co-producer together with Amos on her second album. The Little Earthquakes single releases also began the longstanding tradition of Amos releasing many original B-sides that were often as good as (if not better than) the album themselves.
One of the most notable B-sides from this period was Amos’ cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, which continues to be controversial. Joe Vallese of PopMatters has argued that her interpretation of Nirvana’s tune “sparked the dialogue surrounding Tori Amos in 1992 and expedited the “love her or hate her” branding” that has followed her for much of her career, and in a way he’s right; the rendition showed that Amos had her own distinct vision and, most importantly, the chops to execute it:
In a move that would define the course of her career, Amos chose to go in a completely different direction for Under the Pink, her sophomore album released in 1994. Where her debut was deeply personal and diary-like in its casual presentation of candid truths, Under the Pink is more impressionistic and oblique. Amos aptly described the songs on the album as more akin to a collection of paintings in a gallery than a journal, even as they’re connected by underlying musical and lyrical tensions.
The song most exemplifying this dichotomy is opening track “Pretty Good Year”: a delicate and wistful sparse piano melody is torn apart in the frenetic bridge then smoothly rearranged to bring the song to an elegant close. The song, inspired by a letter from a male fan in his early twenties, also marked a considerable movement away from the confessional lyrics of her debut — Amos told The Baltimore Sun that “you don’t really know what my role is [in “Pretty Good Year”]. Am I Lucy, or am I that eight bars of grunge that comes out near the end where I express, and then nothing, everything else is Greg’s story? I found that kind of really fun. The emotion is coming from somebody else’s story. And yet it touched me so that I could sing it.”
Under the Pink also provided Amos with an unlikely hit and her signature song in the form of “Cornflake Girl”. I’m not necessarily sure how the song became so successful; it’s tremendously offbeat, with its basic musical foundation derived from reggae (yes, reggae), and its lyrics, largely inspired by an Alice Walker novel, require their own separate glossary:
Amos and Rosse’s personal relationship fell apart during her 1994 world tour, an event that would inspire Amos’ next and perhaps most idiosyncratic album, Boys for Pele, released in 1996. The record’s title was inspired by the Hawaiian goddess Pele and Amos’ reevaluation of her previous relationships with men, realizing that she had been chasing other men’s fire instead of finding her own. Pele fittingly marked the first time Amos was sole producer on one of her albums. She chose to record much of the album in a centuries-old church in Delgany, Ireland, intending to reintegrate female energy into Christian theology. This intimate atmosphere perfectly suits the tone of the record. w
Pele is one of the most musically diverse albums in Amos’ career — over seventy performers are credited in the liner notes, from percussionists to a gospel choir to an actual bull — and the lyrics of its songs are filled with both oblique imagery and painfully relatable insights. Lead single “Caught a Lite Sneeze” —the first-ever single to be released online for download before being available in stores — is one such example: musically, it blends harpsichord and drum programming while Tori sings about nuns, someone named Mr. St. John, and trying to make a relationship work. Similarly, “Doughnut Song” turns out to be an achingly familiar dissection of unavailability:
The album unsurprisingly received polarized reviews from not only Atlantic record executives, who doubted Pele would be commercially successful, but from critics as well; one reviewer even suggested its lyrics were less intelligible than “Gravity’s Rainbow written in Greek”. Despite this mixed response, the record was hugely commercially successful, going Platinum and birthing a #1 Billboard Club Play hit with a remix of “Professional Widow”.
Amos’ subsequent world tour in support of the album found herself confronting and processing much of the aftermath of her relationship with Rosse on stage, creating a live experience unlike any other in her career. While on tour, Amos discovered she was expecting a child with Mark Hawley, her sound engineer, but miscarried the child in late December. This devastating experience would greatly inform one of her most personal records, From the Choirgirl Hotel.
”How many fates turn around in the overtime?” -“Spark” (1998)
After her miscarriage in December 1996, Amos travelled to Florida to begin writing the songs that would become From the Choirgirl Hotel while a state-of-the-art studio, Martian Engineering, was being built in rural Cornwall, England. Martian Engineering would become the primary recording space for all of Amos’ subsequent albums and afforded her control over the masters and production of her records. As well, the process of recording the album marked the first time Amos had recorded with a full band and the first time she worked with drummer Matt Chamberlain, who would become one of her closest musical collaborators.
The songs on From the Choirgirl Hotel run the musical and emotional gamut from wildly adventurous electronic experiments to poignant ballads to dancefloor raves – Amos noted that “I would have to change clothes to sing these songs”. “Spark”, which opens the album, is directly inspired by Amos’ miscarriages – she had a second miscarriage just before recording began – and remains one of her best songs to date:
The polar opposite of “Spark” is “Jackie’s Strength”, a moving and surprisingly funny ode to motherhood grounded in Amos’ anxieties about her upcoming marriage to Hawley and turning to Jackie Onassis for guidance – not only remembering her but bringing her directly into Amos’ own past. The accompanying music video remains one of the finest combinations of Amos’ music and the moving image:
Amos followed up From the Choirgirl Hotel with 1999’s To Venus and Back, a double album of brand-new songs and live recordings from her 1998 Plugged Tour. Apart from a few songs like the anthemic lead single “Bliss”, Venus is one of her most experimental albums, interested more in atmosphere than conventional songcraft.
Amos finally successfully gave birth to a daughter, Natashya, in 2001, then began to embark upon one of her most daring and controversial projects: the 2001 covers album Strange Little Girls.
While Amos had become known for her often revisionist interpretations of other artists’ songs, especially in live performance, Strange Little Girls marked the first and only time she had released a studio-recorded cover album. Thematically, Amos chose to cover songs originally recorded by male artists from the perspective of various female characters without changing a single word.
This approach resulted in such interpretations as a chilling take on Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” sung from the perspective of the dead mother in Slim Shady’s car trunk and her sprawling, epic nine-minute-long take on “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, which included soundbites from her father, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush on gun control. Amos accompanied these covers with portraiture inspired by the character in each song.
I hadn’t planned to write much about Strange Little Girls when I first decided to do an Artist Spotlight about Tori Amos several months ago, but the last few weeks have made it clear that the record is as relevant now as it was sixteen years ago. Amos was in New York City when 9/11 occurred, and her tender performance of Tom Waits’ “Time” – another track from the record – on David Letterman on September 18th is one of her most powerful television performances, even bringing Letterman himself to tears:
Having delivered the six studio albums that Atlantic had required in their contract with her way back in 1986, Amos began to move on to other pastures, choosing to sign with Epic Records for her next few releases. From this point forward, her records became even more ambitious and complex despite once again facing pressures from the music industry (and, it should be noted, many fans) to conform to their idea of what and who ‘Tori Amos’ ought to be be.
2002-2007: If It’s Too Loud, Turn It Up
”This is where you know the Honey from the Killer Bees” – “Taxi Ride” (2002)
Amos’ travels during her 2001 solo tour became the inspiration for what is arguably her lyrical masterwork, Scarlet’s Walk. An eighteen-song narrative following the journey of an alter ego called Scarlet across America, the record’s warm, Fleetwood Mac-esque aesthetic was well-received by critics and commercially successful based on the hit lead single “A Sorta Fairytale” and its music video co-starring Adrian Brody. (The single version of the song excises an important verse, so I’ve chosen to highlight the album version instead.)
While some took the smoother sound of Scarlet’s Walk as an indication Amos had mellowed, it’s clear that Amos remained as sharp a lyricist as ever, especially on “Taxi Ride”, partly inspired by the death of longtime friend and makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin. I listened to “Taxi Ride” last night and when Amos sighs, ”Just another dead fag to you, that’s all”, I was reminded of Orlando and my own fears; then she sings “I’m glad you’re on my side, still”, and it helps — in a different way than “Silent All These Years”, but on the same level.
Amos released a best-of compilation the following year that freed her from her contractual obligations with Atlantic, but she had already begun to experience difficulties at her new label. Polly Anthony, the Epic record executive whose presence in a male-dominated sphere had encouraged Amos to sign with the label, was let go. At the same time, Amos’ mother Mary was battling a life-threatening illness, her brother Michael died from a motorcycle accident, and Amos began to write a candid memoir with Ann Powers titled Piece By Piece.
It may be surprising that The Beekeeper, the album resulting from this period, is so sunny and inviting— but the lyrics tell a different story. The nineteen songs on the album, grouped into six different thematic gardens, remain the brightest, most major-key collection of songs Amos has ever produced, but the lyrics rank among the darkest she has ever penned, frankly discussing death, adultery, and betrayal. Looking back, it’s difficult not to see many of the songs as subtle jabs at Epic and their increased desire to constrict Amos’ artistic freedom, especially “Sweet the Sting”. That half-smile on the album cover says more than one might think:
While Amos ends The Beekeeper on a largely hopeful note with a heartwarming ode to her deceased brother Michael, she would draw from a very different sort of energy for her next release. In 2005, George W. Bush was elected as President of the United States for a second term, and Amos found herself questioning how women could have allowed him to become elected. She then considered the compartmentalization and fragmentation of women in 21st-century society, while at the same time discovering that the songs she was writing for her next record were often completely disparate from each other in musical styles and that many called for an aggressive rock energy she had only occasionally harnessed on earlier records. She told Sound Opinions in 2007:
“Live, I’d been playing with Matt [Chamberlain] and Jon [Evans, bassist] for years, but something happened. Maybe it was the response to where things were in the world so that the material had this kind of rawness and urgency – a quality, an ingredient – that I could push it to that place. And when the songs were coming in, I knew that there were different voices here, and I was either making one record with many voices or I was making many records, which I knew was not the case.”
From this storm of influences came 2007’s American Doll Posse, one of her best, most daring, and most complex albums. It’s also the very first album I ever heard by Tori Amos.
Heavily inspired by glam rock, the twenty-three songs on the record are sung by five vocally and physically distinct female characters (the ‘doll posse’ of the title), each based on a different Greek goddess archetype — sensitive Clyde (Persephone), politically-charged Isabel (Artemis), seductive Santa (Aphrodite), confrontational Pip (Athena) and, of course, Tori (the dual role of Demeter/Dionysius).
(L-R: Santa, Clyde, Isabel, Tori, Pip.)
The songs sung by these five women are inspired by various male ‘rock gods’, everything from Led Zeppelin to James Taylor to The Damned, and while they differ in style they come together as a unified thesis statement on the personal as political (and vice versa) and the role of women in society and the musical industry. Lead single “Big Wheel” was actually censored for Tori singing “I am a M-I-L-F, don’t you forget” in its bridge.
Some fans and critics claimed that Amos was merely playing dress-up or that the vocal differences between the dolls were superficial at best. Whether or not one agrees with those criticisms, the album’s concept afforded Amos the ability to explore a tremendous range of musical styles. The results are always exciting and frequently revelatory, including the Led Zeppelin-inspired carnal bluesy rocker “You Can Bring Your Dog” (sung by Santa), the bittersweet poppy “Bouncing Off Clouds” sung by Clyde, “Teenage Hustling” (inspired by The Damned and sung by Pip), and the ferocious “Body and Soul” (a duet between Santa and Pip):
American Doll Posse is one hell of an introductory record into the discography of someone like Tori Amos, and my mythology- and archetype-loving teenaged self dove right in to the album’s entirely singular world. Amos took the concept one step further and went on a world tour performing as the Posse — Pip, Santa, Isabel, or Clyde would ‘open’ the show with vastly different sets, then Tori came on stage for the remainder of the concert. Not only that, but she kept regular blogs writing from each doll’s perspective. The result was the sort of tour that no artist has even attempted to replicate since:
That same year, Amos was commissioned to write a musical adaptation of George MacDonald’s fairytale The Light Princess with a book co-written by Samuel Adamson by Britain’s National Theatre, a production that would eventually premiere in 2014.
2008-2014: Cathedrals of Sound
“Will you choose fear / will you choose love?” — “Flavor” (2009)
Amos’ contract with Epic ended in 2008 and she officially became an independent artist. A chance run-in with an assistant of Doug Morris led to Amos and Morris reuniting and Amos signing to Mercury Classics for her next album, 2009’s Abnormally Attracted to Sin, inspired by observations Amos made during her 2007 tour and the recession in the United States, her reflections on the music industry after reconnecting with Morris, and the concept of ‘erotic spirituality’.
Many fans and critics fidgeted in their chairs and chose to tune out at the news Amos had released another seventy-plus minute album, but it was their loss; Abnormally Attracted to Sin was one of Amos’ lushest and most detailed albums – she aptly described the record as “audio mescaline” – and one of her best-sequenced, filled with layers of instrumentation but never overwhelming the listener. One of the album’s most unusual and most rewarding detours was the chilly, otherworldly “Flavor”, which I would argue features the best use of Auto-Tune in pop music since 808s & Heartbreak:
Amos released a second full-length album that same year, Midwinter Graces, comprised of reworkings of traditional holiday carols and a handful of originals, including the gloriously jazzy “Pink and Glitter”. Amos’ flirtatious rendition of the song with a brass band on Letterman remains one of my favourite television performances:
This theme of reinterpreting ‘classic’ material emerged once again when Amos was unexpectedly contacted by a musicologist at prestigious classical music label Deutsche Grammophon who floated the idea of composing a twenty-first-century song cycle based on four hundred years of classical music. Amos gamely took the challenge on, drawing not only from her skills as a crafter of narrative in song but the ability to thoroughly analyze musical structures — “cathedrals of sound”, to quote the song “Carry” — she had first developed at the Peabody Conservatory.
The result was Night of Hunters, an immersive song cycle heavily inspired by Irish mythology that follows the rise and fall of a centuries-old relationship. Instead of simply taking classical compositions and putting words on top, the songs on Night of Hunters use their source works as a springboard. Take, for instance, “Shattering Sea”, inspired by French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Prelude Op. 31, No.8. I’ve provided links to both “Shattering Sea” and a short video comparing Amos and Alkan’s pieces:
In 2012, Amos released an album of orchestral rearrangements of songs spanning her twenty-year discography recorded live with the Metropole Orchestra, then turned her full attention to finishing The Light Princess. Unbeknownst to anyone apart from her production team, Amos had been writing her own compositions (which she termed “secret sonic selfies”) on the side, songs that would form her next album, Unrepentant Geraldines, released in 2014. It’s a warm, inviting, and concept-free album, but Amos still had surprises up her sleeve, including the way sun-dappled opener “America”, inspired by Diane Arbus photographs, bursts into glorious Beatles-inspired Technicolour in the bridge. This fan-made video is pretty cheesy, but the song is worth it:
During her 2014-2015 solo tour supporting Unrepentant Geraldines, Amos began to revisit many of the songs from Y Kant Tori Read in live performance, infusing them with a maturity and perspective that was only hinted at in their original incarnations:
An original cast recording of The Light Princess recorded over eleven months at Martian Studios appeared in 2015. Amos’ next project will likely be the announced rerelease of Boys for Pele to commemorate its twentieth anniversary this year; beyond that, no-one but Amos what direction she’ll take.
Throughout her entire career, Amos has delighted in confounding expectations, choosing to zig where others expected her to zag, and this has resulted in an ever-growing body of work that stands alone in its complexity, fearlessness, and power. (I haven’t even gotten into the hundreds of non-album tracks she’s released over the years, nor how her songs consistently evolve when performed live.) Back in 1992, she asked listeners whether she could be them for a while, and while she’s since found her own voice, she still helps us find ours. I am very grateful that I discovered her music and have been consistently willing to follow Amos on her sonic journeys, no matter the destinations they may take me to.